Forgetting to Ask Why Martin Lost
By Al Diamon
John’s gone: Why?
It’s supposed to be one of the fundamental questions of journalism, every bit as important to a good story as who, what, when and where. But after Democratic state Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake lost his bid for another term in the Maine Legislature – it would have been his 24th – almost nobody bothered to ask why.
At Maine Public Radio, reporter Jay Field touched on Martin’s contention that it was heavy spending by Republicans, but never explored the issues those attack ads raised or whether they moved voters. Instead, Field devoted most of his airtime to reviewing Martin’s long career, his accomplishments and his influence. The question of how a guy who was so entrenched, accomplished and influential could lose to a relative unknown was left hanging.
At the Bangor Daily News, staff writer Christopher Cousins rehashed Martin’s complaints about the outside spending and did the seemingly obligatory rundown of his career and occasional missteps. Likewise, at the Portland Press Herald, reporter Eric Russell assessed Martin’s time in Augusta without explaining what brought it to an end. The nearest anyone came to an answer was the Press Herald’s Steve Mistler in the final sentence of his piece on how Democratic control of the Legislature would bring a revised agenda to the State House. Mistler wrote, “Martin and his business interests were at the center of controversies that may have hurt his bid.”
In recent months, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting has done several investigative pieces and follow-ups on Martin and his relationship with the Irving family of companies. It’s not much of a stretch to assume that information might have had something to do with his defeat.
In any case, it would have been a good place for a journalist concerned about why to start.
Winning the “who’s winning?” war: Since at least the 1970s, the Bangor Daily News has done the best job of compiling returns on election night. Other news organizations might be first with the tallies in their areas, but nobody came close to the BDN in reporting statewide totals. That didn’t change with the shift from old technologies to new ones. The Bangor paper’s website was generally firstest with the mostest once the polls closed. TV stations, wire services and even other newspapers relied on it in picking the victors.
This year, the rival MaineToday Media papers made a concerted effort to compete with the Bangor Daily. They came up short.
MaineToday had a new look for its home pages, with some of the top contests bannered across the top. Some, but not all. It took a few clicks to run down the major races. As for local contests, finding results was hit or miss. The site was plagued by technical glitches (a box appeared each time I tried to leave the home page asking me if I really wanted to do that).
In contrast, the BDN‘s site had all the big stuff right out front. One click brought visitors to a complete listing of every office and question on the ballot from Kittery to Fort Kent.
In the early evening, MTM managed to keep pace with the BDN in the percentage of the vote it had collected. Up until about 10 p.m., it was actually slightly ahead in returns from the 1st Congressional District. But by the time big questions were being settled, Bangor’s site was the place to be if you wanted hard numbers.
On the morning after the election, it was obvious MaineToday had given up tabulating after the last edition of its papers went to bed. In Bangor they’d kept at it into the wee hours. As the day wore on, the Bangor Daily tracked down those last precincts to report, while the MaineToday site remained stuck on numbers from the night before. It wasn’t until well into the afternoon that MTM had fresh figures. By that time, Bangor had just about everything wrapped up.
Which brings us to the results of this last race: the Bangor Daily News in a landslide.
(Disclosure: The Bangor paper and The Bollard have a business relationship, and Bollard editor Chris Busby writes a weekly column for the BDN.)
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com.